Atacama & the north
The Atacama Desert’s lunar landscapes, spouting geysers, centuries-old petroglyphs, desert-adapted wildlife and star-crammed skies are an unmissable experience.
I expected some good desert scenery in the Atacama in the north, but this was far more varied than I ever thought possible, with weird and wonderful rock formations, sand dunes, salt lakes, oases, geyser fields … and with the volcanic Andean mountains giving the most perfect backdrop.
The Atacama Desert in Chile is a land of surprises. The driest place on earth yet there are lakes and springs, apparently inhospitable yet there is wildlife, lunar and Martian landscapes on the earth. It has to be seen to be believed. At night the big skies are filled with stars fascinating professional astronomers in their observatories and keen amateur stargazers in equal measure. Human habitation goes back to pre-Columbian times as shown by several petroglyph sites across the region. You can visit charming desert and highland villages and a once-thriving mining ghost town, all part of the human story of northern Chile.
- Valley views, hikes, bikes & horses: Evocatively named valleys, Moon, Rainbow, Cactus and the more sinister Death, are all superb hiking locations where you can appreciate the space, open skies and other-worldly landscapes of the Atacama Desert. You can also explore by 4x4, bike and on horseback to observe the stone and sand formations created by wind and water erosion.
- Water in the Atacama Desert: The Salar de Atacama is a huge salt flat, the third largest on earth, created by the evaporation of water that flowed from the surrounding mountains. Today a number of saline lagoons remain such as salt-rimmed Laguna Ceja and Ojos de Salar. At El Tatio you can witness the dramatic sight of plumes of steam shooting into the air. Visit in the early morning when the 50 or so geothermal geysers put on their best show. More thermal energy is evident at Puritama where you can indulge in a soak in the sulphuric hot springs enjoying their curative and restorative properties.
- Ghost towns & villages: Walking through a deserted town is an atmospheric if eerie experience. Humberstone and Santa Laura are neighbouring former saltpetre mining towns at their peak in the late 19th and early 20th century. Remnants of the equipment, much manufactured in England, and buildings can be seen, and the towns have achieved new fame as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Swap the past for the present with a visit to the desert oasis village of Toconao with its pretty church, belltower, square and flourishing orchards.
- Wildlife: That animals have been present in this extreme environment for aeons is evident from the amazing petroglyphs in the Rainbow Valley and at Pintados. Carved into the rock are depictions of pumas, foxes and guanacos as well as self-portraits. You can see some of these creatures today, along with vicunas (smaller than but similar to guanacos) and viscachas, a large chinchilla. Lauca National Park in the highlands is one of the best places to view wildlife. Three of the five known flamingo species (Chilean, Andean and James) frequent Laguna Chaxa where ducks can also be seen. By the coast you can see seals, pelicans, cormorants, boobies and gulls.
- Look heavenward: The cloud-free night skies and lack of light pollution mean that the Atacama is a perfect place to observe the planets, stars and other heavenly bodies. The powerful telescopes of many observatories scan the skies in minute detail discovering far off galaxies imperceptible to the naked eye. Star-gazing tours offer the chance for the region’s visitors to use powerful telescopes to view far-off stars and see the planets in more detail than ever before. Some hotels have their own telescope so you can enjoy the stellar spectacle at your leisure.